Monday, November 20, 2017

Writing Within the Guardrails

Do you like driving inside the guardrails?
Earlier this week, I watched The Terry Kath Experience. It’s a documentary about one of the founders of the band Chicago. Kath was the only guitar player and he sang lead. I’ve long zeroed in on Kath as my favorite member of the original group of seven guys who made up the band with Robert Lamm a close second. This despite me, a kid who ‘discovered’ Chicago in 1985 and wondered why their ‘newest’ album was named ‘17.’ Anyway, when I learned Kath’s daughter, Michelle Kath Sinclair, was making this documentary to learn more about her father, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I thought I was going to have to purchase the DVD, but the channel AXS aired it. Lo and behold I actually get that channel and viola! I got to watch this wonderful film.

When you trace Terry Kath’s life, you see a truly remarkable musical genius. If you listen to any studio album, you can hear Kath’s intricate soloing. His talent for lead guitar playing was even more on display on any of the live albums featuring the original seven. With the advent of YouTube, I have been able to see live footage from the 1970s and the manic energy Kath brought to the fore as the only guitar player in the band. One of the all-time best shows available is the 1970 concert from Tanglewood. They open with my all-time favorite song, “Introduction,” and the group rarely slows down.

Speaking of “Introduction,” one of the reasons I love it so much is that it is track 1 of side 1 of Chicago’s first album. It’s the ‘mission statement song,’ the one song that encapsulated what Chicago was back then. In the documentary, there’s a segment that I hadn’t heard before. You see, Kath couldn’t read music, at least back then. He enlisted trombonist James Pankow—the third member who helped shape the sound of the band in the beginning(s)—to write down the chart for everyone. When Pankow complied, he was astounded that a song as intricate and complex as “Introduction” was all there…in Kath’s mind.

Many folks might chalk Chicago up to a band who excelled in mid-tempo hits in the 70s and ballads in the 80s. That’s true, but that isn’t how they started. For the time, they were a progressive band, their song often involving intricate arrangements and constantly shifting time signatures. Guys like Lamm and Kath loved that part of the early tenure of the band. But fame and fortune did the same thing it did to many artists: it began to suffocate them. The more hits the band produced, the more audiences expected to hear certain songs. Where Kath was able to put “Free Form Guitar” on the first album (a 6-minute track with just Kath, his guitar, and the amp) and the band opened side 1 of Chicago VII with a bunch of experimental instrumentals, gradually the pressure to play “Saturday in the Park,” “Just You n’ Me,” and “If You Me Now,” every single night began to weigh on him.

As the documentary relates, by the last tour, Kath was all but ready to bolt. He missed playing whatever he felt like playing. You get the impression that Kath’s mindset was akin to “Look, I’m gonna play what I’m gonna play, the audience be damned.” In that spirit, he’s in the same boat as Miles Davis and Jimi Hendrix to name just two. Chicago did that for the Chicago VII tour…and they’ve never done it since. They saw the audience reactions to their long solos and instrumentals. It wasn’t why audiences came to their shows. They wanted the hits and little else.

Thus, we have the age-old conflict between artistic vision and commercial expectations. Sure, you can play whatever you want on an album, but if you don’t give the listeners what they want, then you’re albums sales will fall and your concerts will be less attended.

The very same thing applies to us writers (and artists and other creative types), too. We can be perfectly happy to write some genre title that no one has ever seen, but you have to put yourself out there and suffer the consequences. Sometimes, you can strike gold and be an outlier. For the majority of us, however, it seems like we need to drive within the guardrails already laid out by writers before us. Some days, you might chaff at the guardrails, but they’ve been laid by not only writers but readers. They are there to help steer you straight.

I count myself in this latter group. And I’m perfectly happy to be there. Are you?

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Get ON With It

Twenty two chapters.

What does that mean for us this morning? That’s the number of chapters it took for the action to get started in Dan Brown’s latest novel, ORIGIN. Heck, I’m not even sure that’s the exact answer—it might have been twenty three or twenty one, but I just don’t care enough to toggle back in my Audible file to find the answer because it’s beside the point.

What happened for all that time up until Chapter Twenty Two? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. And even after the action gets started, there is more talking. Lots of talking. Mini lectures, actually. It’s almost like a Michael Crichton novel. I have a distinct memory of reading RISING SUN and, every now and then, I’d turn the page and there’s be wall-to-wall text and I knew I was in for a mini lecture. Heck, Crichton even had footnotes. At least Brown mostly put his lectures—but not all—in the form of dialogue.

I never disliked Dan Brown. I was one of those millions of readers who jumped on the THE DA VINCI CODE bandwagon. That was a thrilling book. Think about it. In that book, chapter one showed a murder and introduced the bad guy, chapter two introduced hero Robert Langdon, and we were off and running. I even diagrammed the first 100 pages of DA VINCI CODE to see how Brown made it work. It was an “aha” moment.

From there, I happily jumped back to ANGELS AND DEMONS and enjoyed it. In some ways, it was better than DA VINCI CODE. I read THE LOST SYMBOL (AKA, “Da Vinci Code in America”), but something must have happened because I completely bypassed INFERNO. For whatever reason, I felt the tug of ORIGIN and, with a new, long commute, I thought “why not?” With the audiobook clocking in at eighteen hours, it would certainly get me through a week or two.

I lasted for about twelve hours before I bumped up the speaking speed to 1.25.  At least then I’d be able to get through the novel in a shorter amount of time. I’m not even done (about three hours until the end) and I’m more or less still listening because I at least want to know the big reveal at the end.

But come on! If the book is supposed to be a thrill ride of a story, put some thrills in it. And speed up the pace. I’m not advocating Brown write a pulp fiction novel. He’s got something to say and has clearly done a lot of research—most likely, it all found its way into the text. But at least Crichton put lots of chases and escapes in his stories. They were exciting to read. Heck, DA VINCI CODE was an exciting and thrilling read. ORIGIN is simply dull.

Maybe the ending will be worth it. We’ll find out.

Coincidentally, in my science fiction book club, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight III: Master Race was selected. This is yet another sequel to his seminal 1986 work, The Dark Knight Returns, a fantastic graphic novel. I intentionally bypassed DKIII because I so loathed The Dark Knight Strikes Again (or whatever the second book was called). With that book, I got the distinct impression the good folks at DC Comics didn’t care what Miller produced as long as he gave them something they could sell. One might argue he didn’t really have an editor, because if he did, some of the stuff he threw in would have been chopped.

Same with Dan Brown, at least with ORIGIN. There’s a story here, but it is one that should have been tightened up, trimmed down, and streamlined. Maybe he’s of a particular stature now that he can pretty much write whatever he wants and it’ll get published. Maybe not, but if  you’re an author who writes a chase book, please start the action way before chapter twenty two.


I finished the book on Sunday. I'm not one to write a full review of a book I didn't like and I'm not gonna start now. But of the four Dan Brown books I've read, this is fourth on the list. I suppose there was a reason I skipped INFERNO. Now I know. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Unfurl Your Writing Banner

Never shrink away from proudly letting the world know you are a writer. Sometimes it might open a door for you.

I started a new job this week and, yet again, it isn’t Full-Time Fiction Writer. Someday. In the meantime, however, I am a…well, it’s a funny thing. You see, the job description used the title “Technical Writer IV” (I love the way that looks; like the fourth movie in a kick-ass movie franchise) but the internal job description uses “IT Content Advisor.” That latter title reads like a high-powered government job or something out of Silicon Valley. Actually, it’s neither. I now work at the main campus of ExxonMobil in Spring, Texas. The project is part of the unified IT initiative where I’m part of a team that consolidates scores of content sources and brings it all under one umbrella. Daunting and challenging, but very interesting. The commute is pretty long—45 minutes in the mornings and 65 in the afternoons; I’ve already adjusted to mental mindset of there’s no quick route—but I started listening to Dan Brown’s ORIGIN so I’m getting by.

What does this have to do with flying that writing banner proudly? It comes down to my resume. When I updated my day-job resume, I debated whether or not to include my writing credentials. By that, I mean my mystery and western novels and stories. I opted for inclusion. In my interview, after all the day-job-type questions were asked, my interviewers asked me about my fiction. It enabled the three of us to have a few moments of informality and ended the interview on a jovial note. I found out this week that the fiction was one of the things that differentiated me above other candidates. My history degrees were also a factor. The clients were looking for something a little different and my liberal arts degree* and creative fiction writing set me apart. Another writer started the same day and she has a behavioral science degree, so we both are not your typical technical writer types.

When I decided to include my fiction, I did so with little regret. My fiction is a part of who I am, and I’m damned proud of the accomplishments. And it helped me get my foot in the door. The pride is just a little bit more now.

So, fellow writers like me who have a day job, I recommend you always put your fiction on your resumes if you don’t already do so. In fact, that’s my question for the week. Do y’all include y’all’s fiction on your day-job resumes?

*The Art of Manliness podcast—one of my favorites; the main website is awesome, too—had an excellent episode entitled “The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education.” Host Brett McKay interviews author George Anders, author of You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. In the episode, they discuss how creative people often possess skills that can be used in various fields and businesses. I had to smile because it came true for me.